With a Smile

- by Michael!

[Note: the name of the person involved has been changed to protect their privacy. Or just to annoy them less. Take your pick.]

I think of myself as a friendly person. Even in the City, I often have a smile for strangers, and I’ll give anybody who looks like they either need it or would return it a cheerful “Good Morning!”, “Could [current weather pattern] be more awful?”, or “Wow, that guy was an [expletive deleted]!” with a broad smile.

During my summers at Chautauqua, this habit is indispensable, because everybody talks to you. Everybody. In the City, I’m the friendly anomaly for offering a greeting to maybe one in a hundred persons; in the weird little community I inhabit two and a half months out of the year, I’m a semi-curmudgeonly recluse for not stopping to converse with every person I meet.

And some of the chattiest and friendliest people are those who guard the gates.  To enter or leave Chautauqua, you have to present a Chautauqua-made photo ID to one of the gate staff, which they scan as though you are produce or some form of esoteric school supply, and then you go on about your business. But most of these people will stop and chat with you for at least a minute in order to ensure that there’s always a very long line to get in or out. I’m sure it’s strategic.

But this one lady… she never stopped to chat, never cracked a smile, barely even made eye contact.

Challenge accepted!

Whenever I found her at the gate, I would linger more than usual. I would comment on the weather, or ask how she was doing, or offer a chance for her to tell me about the book she was reading.

Nada. Zip. Zilch. A flicker of the eyes, a swift scan with her magic people-pushing wand, and at best a grunted “Thanks” as she allowed me passage and dove back into the pages of her book.

Now, I’m a sucker for a good book – in fact, trying to talk to me while I’m reading is a great time to make me agree to anything, as I’ll usually just verbalize some form of acknowledgment that you’re speaking while never really removing my attention from the flow of the story in front of me – but come on! This lady is tasked with welcoming people to this place. She’s the first person some people see. Shouldn’t she make an effort, be at least a little warm, even if only for a moment?

My efforts to win her over escalated in desperation, growing to a fevered pitch as I sought some sign of life from her… and then I started to resent her for resisting my friendliness, and I began to think of her as simply sour, cranky, unchangeably dour. I wrote off the experiment, called it a loss, figured that my friendliness couldn’t be expected to charm everybody.

Then one day I pulled up to her gate, pulled out my card, and as she leaned over – eyes still on her book – to wave her wand and let me through, her nametag jostled just enough to call my attention.

Almost holding my breath, I said to her, “Thank you, Jane.” [Again: not her real name.]

Lo and behold! Her eyes met mine, she grinned – wry and full of life like the moon would grin if she could – and said, “Sure, Michael. Have a good one.” And she turned back to her book as I rolled through the gate, stunned and gladdened.

Had she just been waiting for me to remember that, as a person, she has a name? And that, as an employee of the Institution, that name was clipped to her shirt? During the entire time I was trying to win her over, had she just been watching and waiting for me to make that step that should have been so incredibly obvious?

Perhaps, or perhaps she just ignored me until I bothered to treat her like a person, to call her by her name, to create a space between us for her to be more than just a function with a facial expression. I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter. Jane and I chatted several more times through the course of the summer, always briefly out of respect for both my business and her book, and every time I saw her that summer or think about her since I remember that I’m not walking among ciphers, that the utilitarian view that so dominates our culture threatens to make waste of us, that each face – whether smiling or not – has a name.